Content Area Learning and Literacy
The content for this guide was adapted from the CCSSO’s
Adolescent Literacy Toolkit provided by Public Consulting Group’s
Center for Resource Management, in partnership with the Council of
Chief State School Officers (August 2007).
The content was informed by feedback from CCSSO partners and
state education officials who participate in CCSSO’s Secondary
School Redesign Project.
Table of Contents
PART I: UNDERSTANDING CONTENT LITERACY......................................................2
A Common Language for Literacy and Learning....................................................................2
Making the Case for Adolescent Literacy Instruction.............................................................3
What Content Area Teachers Need to Know............................................................................5
Best Practices Frameworks........................................................................................................11
Planning Strategic Literacy-Based Lessons.............................................................................14
PART II: LITERACY INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES................................................22
NOTES: Content Area Literacy Guide
It is indisputable that high school students must become proficient readers and writers to
successfully meet the requirements of the secondary curricula and be adequately prepared for
college and citizenship. But all too often high school teachers have not been adequately
prepared to strengthen the literacy skills of their students. This Content Area Literacy Guide1
is a resource to help high school teachers learn how to use literacy strategies as an essential
means to help students master core content.
The Content Area Literacy Guide begins with a description of the various terms that are used
within its pages, followed by an explanation of why content literacy development is critical
for all students at the high school level. The Guide provides concrete suggestions for
supporting all students as they progress from the learning to read focus of elementary school
to the reading to learn focus of high school core content classes.
Examples of instructional strategies and best practices that support adolescent learners to
improve content literacy and learning outcomes within the science, social studies,
mathematics, and English classes are provided to encourage thinking and discussion by
secondary educators as they learn more about literacy best practices. Suggestions are
provided about how to integrate what is known about adolescent literacy and literacy best
practices into content instruction.
The Guide also includes a framework for effective lesson planning and a template to assist
with planning content area lessons that incorporate before, during, and after reading. Teachers
may adapt the template to address district and local school lesson planning requirements.
The Guide concludes with a collection of nearly two dozen strategies that support students’
literacy development and their understanding of content. Each strategy includes a description,
its purpose, step-by-step directions for use, and suggestions for differentiated applications.
Each description also contains a quadrant chart that illustrates how each instructional strategy
might be implemented in an English, mathematics, science, or social studies classroom.
The focus of this Guide is on content area reading, but two points must be emphasized: 1) Although
reading is emphasized in these materials, literacy is more than just reading; 2) Many in the literacy
field stress the interconnectedness of reading, writing, and thinking and the need to explicitly provide
instruction and modeling for each of these to support student success.
NOTES: PART I: UNDERSTANDING CONTENT LITERACY
A Common Language for Literacy and Learning
It is important to have common language when talking with colleagues and with students
about literacy and learning. Without a shared vocabulary, it is difficult to talk about what you
are trying to accomplish to improve teaching and learning.
In this Guide, adolescent literacy refers to the ability of middle and high school students to
competently read, write, think about, discuss, and present text-based information and ideas
using a wide variety of print formats, including electronic and multimedia.
Three additional terms appear frequently throughout these materials: learning strategies,
instructional strategies, and best practices. It is important to note these concepts have many
meanings throughout the field of literacy. Thus, the definitions below are not intended to
define these terms in the field, but are used here to help teachers understand and use the
resources in this Guide.
Learning strategies refer to the specific strategies students learn how to use independently to
understand a new concept or master a skill. One way to think about learning strategies is to
consider what an effective practitioner of a discipline does to solve a challenging problem.
For example, what do good readers do when confronted with the challenge of understanding a
difficult text? Good readers consider what they know about a topic before reading. They also
monitor their comprehension and generate questions as they read.
In order for students to learn how to use specific learning strategies independently, it is
important for teachers to explain and ensure students understand the following:
1. What each strategy is designed to do
2. Why the strategy is important to use
3. How the strategy works
Instructional (Literacy Support) Strategies
Instructional strategies are the specific techniques teachers use to support student learning.
They are often used to convey and organize information that is provided to students, or they
may be used to teach specific learning strategies. In the field of content literacy, instructional
strategies are often referred to as literacy support strategies, e.g., two-column note taking
(which supports the learning strategy of note taking), anticipation/reaction guide (which
supports the learning strategies of establishing a purpose for reading and finding evidence in
the text), reciprocal teaching (which supports the social nature of literacy and the specific
reading comprehension strategies of predicting, summarizing, clarifying, and questioning), as
well as others.
It is important to note that a teaching strategy may also be a learning strategy. For example, a
NOTES: teacher may ask students to use a graphic organizer to organize information from a text.
Students may also use graphic organizers independently to support their reading of texts.
When using the resources in this Guide, best practices refer to routine uses of instructional
strategies that support student learning. Best practices develop from evidence in the research,
as well as the interpretation of the evidence by experts in the field. Since research is always
ongoing, what constitutes a best practice is always evolving and open for debate.
One best practice promoted in this Guide is the Before, During, and After framework. This
framework describes the routine of using instructional strategies at each of the following
three phases of instruction:
1. Prior to reading a text to prepare for learning
2. During the reading of a text to monitor comprehension
3. After the reading of a text to consolidate learning
Another best practice is the Gradual Release model. This is a pattern where teachers provide
a great deal of scaffolding or support when students are introduced to new material. As a
lesson or unit progresses, scaffolding is gradually released until students have independently
mastered the concepts or skills. The gradual release model often includes the following:
1. Direct instruction and/or modeling at the outset
2. Some type of collaborative or small group work
3. Independent practice or demonstration
When supporting students’ literacy development in any content area, it is important to:
1. Consider what learning strategies students need to use in order to master the concepts
and skills being taught
2. Determine what instructional strategies best fit the context
3. Make sure effective instructional routines are practiced on a regular basis
Making the Case for Adolescent Literacy Instruction
What the Data Show
If we hope to increase students’ content knowledge, persistence through graduation, and
readiness for college and citizenship, literacy instruction must be an essential component of
all core content classes. The reality is many middle and high schools do not provide this
instruction systemically across all content area classes. The result is many students who enter
high school on or close to grade level reading skills are losing ground as they progress
through high school. A recent study of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT
College Exam found that only half of the students were ready for college-level reading
assignments in core subjects like mathematics, history, science, and English (ACT, 2006).
An additional reality is most students are not arriving at our nation’s high schools with grade
NOTES: level reading skills. Less than a third of the nation’s adolescents demonstrate proficiency with
grade level reading skills and expectations; even worse, only one in seven low-income
students are meeting grade level expectations (National Center of Education Statistics, 2005).
Governor Wise of the Alliance for Excellent Education puts it this way, “reading is the heart
of learning, and the nation is in the literacy emergency room showing a flat line on the
education EKG. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, nationally
and for each state, clearly demonstrate we still are not doing what is needed to help our older
students build the reading skills they will need to deal with increasingly complex high school
courses” (AEE, 2006).
Elementary Versus High School Literacy Instruction
In the elementary years, reading instruction focuses on basic reading: phonics/decoding,
fluency, and comprehension of narrative and simple informational text. The type of
instruction needed for most students to be successful with content area reading and writing
changes drastically in middle and high school. Students in middle and high schools are
bombarded with a wide variety of complex expository and descriptive text, technical content
vocabulary, and writing requirements of content classes. Most students know how to read on
at least a literal level when they enter high school. In other words, they can decode and
comprehend basic information when reading straightforward text. However, many do not
know how to “read to learn” more complex texts on their own; they do not know how to
independently use reading, writing, and critical thinking strategies to comprehend
information, construct meaning, question the author’s thinking against other text or their own
experiences, or synthesize new information and ideas to new situations. Literacy instruction
at the high school level should support students to continue developing reading fluency;
improving vocabulary knowledge; developing higher-level reasoning and thinking skills;
improving reading comprehension strategies, and increasing student motivation and
engagement with reading and writing (Torgeson et al., 2007).
Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas
Content literacy instruction is needed for students to meet the reading, vocabulary, critical
thinking, and writing demands they face. With just basic reading instruction, students are
unprepared to read, write, and discuss using the language of science, social studies,
mathematics, and English language arts—the result is that many are not successful without
support to do this within the context of content area instruction. As students are asked to read
texts of increasing complexity from grade level to grade level, their skills as readers must also
become increasingly sophisticated. High school students still need support in learning how to
comprehend and critically think about media, lectures, demonstrations, charts and graphs, and
hands-on activities. When they are confronted each year with increasingly complex texts to
read in every class, in content areas that are either new to them or require higher order
analysis, evaluation, and synthesis, many students find that they “can read it, but don’t get it”
(Tovani, 2000). Students need to realize that the skills, comprehension requirements, and
understanding of text structures involved with reading a mathematics textbook, a science
journal article, a primary source in a history class, and a Shakespearian play are quite
different—and they need to be able to use effective learning strategies with each.
Content area teachers play a critical role in supporting adolescents’ ability to comprehend the
tough expository and literary text they are required to read. There are two main reasons for
1) No one understands the specific content of English language arts, social studies,
science, and mathematics better than the teacher of that discipline. Content area
teachers are the ones who have the knowledge of the reading, writing, listening,
NOTES: discussion, and deep thinking skills that are required to understand content text.
2) Content area teachers have the opportunity to develop students’ literacy skills
because they see them on a frequent, regular basis and can teach content relevant
to reading and writing within the context of a unit of study, promoting
engagement and learning (Irvin, J., Meltzer, J., & Dukes, M., 2007).
Content area teachers need onsite support to learn and implement literacy best practices
through professional development and opportunities to collaboratively plan and share literacy
instructional strategies. When teachers receive this type of support, they can play an essential
role in addressing and supporting the literacy needs of adolescents. The suggestions within
this Guide provide a framework for content teachers to use to begin to address the alarming
statistics of adolescent literacy within their classrooms.
What Content Area Teachers Need to Know
Teachers often find they actually know more than they realize about good reading practices
because many are avid readers in their content area and intuitively construct meaning. Many
teachers intuitively know how to read their content, but may not have used a specific
instructional strategy to help students learn these skills. Teachers need to make the steps in
the reading/learning process visible and accessible to every student.
First, it is important that teachers understand and articulate the specific reading and learning
demands of their respective content areas. Because some state standards embed literacy
standards within content descriptions, or separate them into reading or English language arts
standards, many teachers of mathematics, science, and social studies have not directly
considered the cognitive demands of content learning. As a result, they may assign reading,
writing, and thinking tasks without considering whether or not the students have the requisite
literacy skills to complete the task.
Next, it is essential for teachers to learn and use a repertoire of instructional strategies,
presented later in this Guide, in purposeful ways to support students to be able to transfer
their use of these strategies across a department, team, and/or school. Within a department or
learning team, teachers can agree on the types of reading, writing, research/inquiry, and
speaking/presenting opportunities students will have, where instruction on how to do these
will occur, and which instructional strategies will be taught, modeled, and used. This will
support students in developing fluency with learning strategies they can use to accomplish
content area learning tasks. Transfer of learning strategies across content areas occurs when
students experience common instructional strategies across content areas and classes.
There are instructional strategies that work well across all content areas, but there are also
studies indicating that some specific literacy strategies support reading and writing in certain
content areas. In particular, reading and writing in science (Norris & Phillips, 1994), social
studies (Mosburg, 2002; Perfetti, Britt, & Georgi, 1995), and mathematics (Leong & Jerred,
2001) require specific skills unique to each content area (as cited in Torgeson et al., 2007, p
18). The following descriptions provide readers with some background information about the
reading and writing demands of the four core content disciplines and important literacy tasks
in each area. If the reading/writing connection is fully developed, students will be better
prepared to make meaning of expository and narrative text. Content teachers have the
opportunities to not only teach the skills and learning strategies most applicable to their
content, but they also can model and teach students how to use reading and writing to learn
the content material. The following information can serve as a springboard for powerful
discussions among teachers, teams, departments, and schools as they consider how to connect
instructional goals with instructional strategies in core content classes. For further
information about content area reading and writing, visit the Content Expert section of the
CCSSO Adolescent Literacy Toolkit.
Reading and Writing in Science
Science text often presents students with particular roadblocks to learning because the
vocabulary is technical, the text is filled with symbols and formulas and it is often written in
an expository style. Science textbooks are often written on a much higher reading level than
the students’ actual reading level or grade level. This presents a challenge for both the on-
grade level student, but especially for the struggling reader. Explicit teaching and modeling of
comprehension strategies, vocabulary development activities, use of leveled text, and use of
collaborative group protocols for reading text and text supplements are just a few of the
instructional strategies and practices that will support literacy needs of science students.
Lab experiences provide science students with a good opportunity to learn and remember
some of the abstract vocabulary found in science text (Barton, 1997). For instance, it is much
easier for students to understand the term mitosis if they can view slides of the stages of cell
division. Lab experiences also provide an opportunity for students to make the
reading/writing connection through the recording of observations, predictions, and
developing hypotheses. The key is to help students make these connections on their own, as
many depend on teachers to frontload information and guide them in explaining lab processes
Inquiry-based science encourages students to use higher order thinking skills and conduct
investigations. Students need support with selecting tools, such as graphic organizers or
learning logs, to collect information from text or experiments as they search for answers.
Organizing their findings and thoughts through writing helps students summarize, synthesize,
and reflect on what they have read or discovered during their investigative methods.
Science tasks require students to gather data, make predictions, conduct experiments, and
interpret data. This requires students to draw upon critical reading skills such as following
directions, drawing conclusions, and problem solving. Understanding these literacy and
cognitive skill requirements of science will allow teachers to help students select appropriate
instructional literacy strategies to support learning and understanding.
Sample literacy tasks required of science students:
• Compare and contrast
• Form hypotheses and draw conclusions
• Understand the ‘bigger picture’
• Determine the relative importance of information
• Write about findings in learning logs or as part of lab report conclusions
Reading and Writing in Social Studies
Students’ success with social studies text requires them to have not only basic level skills
such as the ability to recall and select main ideas and details, but also the ability to use higher
order thinking skills to analyze text format and structure, evaluate perspective and sources,
and synthesize across multiple texts. As students engage with text, they use questioning
NOTES: strategies or skills to build meaning and understanding (Beck & McKeown, 2002). They also
must identify cause and effect relationships, recognize bias, distinguish fact from opinion,
and compare and contrast. Social studies texts come with other literacy challenges—the need
to read graphs and maps and various presentations of data.
As social studies teachers plan instruction, it is important to identify instructional strategies
that will best support students to learn facts and, more importantly, to understand context and
relationships and to make connections from differing periods of history to current events.
Questioning strategies, such as Question Answer Relationship (QAR) and ReQuest, move
students from simple recall to making the types of inferences that are so important for
students’ deep understanding of social studies text.
Class activities should support the reading/writing connection and help students move from a
basic understanding of bias, issues of equality and differing points of view. Instructional
strategies should transition from reading about cause and effect relationships to writing
persuasive and argumentative essays supported by students’ understanding of the topic. By
writing about the information collected during reading of social studies texts, students have
the opportunity to clearly define their thinking and understanding. Writing assignments in
social studies should stimulate students’ thinking and may include report writing about an
event in history; expository writing to compare and contrast; writing narratives that weave
historical events with fiction; and writing to argue or defend an idea or belief.
Sample literacy tasks required of social studies students:
• Sequence and make connections between historical events
• Understand text structures and features
• Evaluate sources
• Recognize issues and trends in context
• Engage in reflective inquiry through reading and writing
• Recognize and write about cause-and-effect relationships
• Distinguish between, and write about, fact versus opinion
Reading and Writing in Mathematics
Mathematics texts are dense with symbols, equations, concise explanations, and graphic
representations that require students to read slowly and deliberately. Understanding the
technical vocabulary of mathematics is critical to knowing how to set up a problem or an
equation. Students must also understand the multiple meanings of words such as power, root,
tangent, reciprocal, and degree, which have specific meanings in mathematics that are quite
different from their meanings in other contexts. Vocabulary development strategies, such as
Knowledge Rating Guides and Triple-Entry Vocabulary Journals, can support the learning
and remembering of mathematics vocabulary.
Understanding the language or vocabulary of mathematics is only the beginning of the
literacy skills required to be successful with reading and understanding mathematics text.
Other literacy challenges include understanding how the position of symbols in an equation
NOTES: or words in a word problem can influence meaning, how to read and interpret graphs, and
how to write an explanation of one’s mathematical thinking, or problem-solving steps.
Mathematics requires students to be analytical readers, something that does not come
naturally to most students (MacGregor, 1990). The savvy mathematics teacher will use a
variety of instructional strategies to help students read and understand mathematics text.
Direct, explicit instruction will guide students’ understanding of terminology; how to “read”
mathematics expressions; and how to successfully identify words in a word problem to guide
setting up the equation to solve the problem.
Constructing meaning through discussion and writing is the natural next step to
comprehension. Mathematics students need the opportunity to discuss and investigate
solutions and apply mathematical vocabulary in their writing and their thinking. When
students have an opportunity to write about their thinking through the problem-solving
process, they become much better at constructing meaning and understanding of the
mathematics concepts and not just the mathematics operation.
Sample literacy tasks for mathematics students:
• Understand processes
• Grasp abstract concepts and translate them into symbols
• Distinguish patterns
• Decode words and numeric and nonnumeric symbols
• Translate words into problems and problems into words
• Use journals to write about and examine ideas and reflect on solutions
• Write paragraphs to compare key concepts, such as a line and a plane
Reading and Writing in English Language Arts
English teachers are often misidentified as the ‘reading teachers.’ The reality is the content of
English language arts is literature, grammar, and certain forms of academic writing (e.g.,
essay, short story, critique). Typically, the focus is on teaching students the literary devices of
fiction and nonfiction genres such as characterization, plot, setting, figurative language,
symbolism, and theme. Yet, English teachers also have the responsibility to teach how to read,
productively discuss, and write about literary works, not just to assign the reading or to teach
the content of the reading. Because English language arts depend so heavily on being able to
read and comprehend complex literary text, it is critical that English teachers know and teach
their students specific learning strategies to help them learn how to construct meaning;
analyze devices like characterization, theme, and plot; develop new vocabulary; and make
The English teacher also has a prime opportunity to encourage a love of reading by providing
choice and a wide variety of reading materials (Wright, 1998). Too often, teachers are
focused on assigning literature from required reading lists instead of motivating students to
read. Student interests should guide the selection of reading materials, and how to select
reading material or books should be an important support provided to students. Students need
a print-rich environment with high-interest adolescent literature and selections that cater to a
wide range of reading levels and connect with the cultural backgrounds and interests of
students. The research of Wilhelm and others also strongly supports the need to provide an
array of nonfiction materials within the English classroom. Nonfiction genres applicable to
the English classroom include biography and autobiography, journalistic writing formats
including newspaper articles, and factual accounts students can compare and contrast with
fictional representation of similar content.
Although some teachers see read-alouds as a strategy only for younger students, secondary
English teachers can connect easily with all students when they read aloud. Students enjoy
hearing the voice of a fluent, expressive reader and will often be more eager to continue
reading on their own if the teacher has used a read-aloud as a way to generate interest. Short
book talks, quick verbal overviews of the books displayed in the classroom, and student
sharing of their favorites through creative venues, like improvised TV interviews, can also
inspire students to read for pleasure as well as learning.
Students need the opportunity to deeply discuss and write about good literature. Collaborative
group exploration of a piece of literature provides an opportunity for student engagement
while they discuss, construct meaning, and take ownership for their understanding of the text.
Literature circles, reciprocal teaching, and other collaborative group strategies support
cooperation, inquiry, problem solving, and communication skills that are so important for
adolescents. At the same time, these instructional strategies develop students’ abilities to
effectively use the literacy and learning strategies of reading, writing, discussing, listening,
and investigating to learn new content. Exposure to an array of fiction and nonfiction genres
is also essential, and students benefit when they learn specific techniques for constructing
meaning and critically responding to ideas and concepts for the various types of genre
through writing and discussion.
Sample literacy tasks for English language arts students:
• Articulate thinking orally and in writing for various audiences
• Understand mechanical standards and rhetorical techniques
• Employ context clues
• Recognize literacy devices
• Understand how to read different literary genres
• Develop fluency with the use of the writing process to generate different types of
• Encourage the reading/writing connection to persuade, learn, inform, and evoke
The second part of this Guide details numerous instructional strategies that will help students
develop literacy skills and better understand content. However, the strategies will not have
much of an impact unless teachers use them deliberately as part of a routine of best practice.
Strategic Teaching effectively combines teacher behaviors and instructional practices to
support student learning and understanding of concepts and texts.
The strategic teaching model is effective because:
1) Students need time to practice learning strategies to support reading and
understanding of text. Strategic teachers model strategies and scaffold instruction
to support students as they internalize those strategies. The simple formula for
scaffolding instruction is ‘I do, We do, You do’ (Rosenshine, Meister, &
2) Adolescents are social beings, and reading and learning are social behaviors.
Interactive collaborative protocols, such as reciprocal teaching, think-pair-share,
and other small group strategies, encourage student talk and deep discussions
connected with learning content material. Collaborative grouping strategies
provide opportunities for students to deeply discuss concepts presented in the text
and to interact with one another at a level that assures comprehension and
understanding. (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994; National Reading Panel, 2002;
Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A., 2003; Guthrie et
3) Students need frequent opportunities to make connections with text. Using linked
strategies to support reading, writing, thinking, and deep discussion about the text
is a critical instructional practice that leads to student understanding. Strategic
teachers routinely employ instructional strategies that help students make
connections with the text before, during, and after reading and learning as an
integral part of content area instruction. The instructional strategies a teacher
chooses will depend on the purpose of the lesson, the nature of the material being
studied, and student data. The National Reading Panel (2002) strongly
recommends including instructional strategies to support students with
“monitoring comprehension; using graphic organizers, generating questions,
answering questions; using text structure; summarizing, activating prior
knowledge, developing vocabulary, listening, and visualizing.”
The strategic teaching model (Fig. 1) synthesizes the work of adolescent literacy researchers
and practitioners. Although a simple model, the concepts and ideas portrayed in the graphic
are complex and should serve as a reminder, when lessons are planned, to include those
instructional strategies that best connect students with learning strategies. The result will be
students who better comprehend textual concepts and information. A reference list is
NOTES: provided at the end of this Guide to serve as a resource for further reading and powerful
discussions among educators.
The graphic below illustrates the Strategic Teaching Model and is taken from Creating a
Culture of Literacy: A Guide for Middle and High School Principals, p. 46. (2005). Reston,
VA: National Association of Secondary Principals.
Best Practices Frameworks
In addition to strategic teaching, effective teachers support students with instructional
strategies used within a best practices framework that connects literacy support with the
instructional goals and the types of texts being read.
Before, During, and After
A best practice framework that fits most lessons or units is the before, during, and after
reading framework. Use of this framework assists students at varying reading levels in
making the important connections proficient readers use when reading for meaning.
Instructional strategies for each stage (before, during, after) of the reading/learning process
are discussed below. The content teacher already supports most of these learning
proficiencies with content-specific learning activities and pedagogy. Adding specific learning
strategies enhances general instructional strategies by providing specific “how-to” support.
Such procedures, templates, or approaches show the students how to achieve content
objectives, instead of attempting to complete an assignment without a plan in mind.
Planning strategic lessons has similarities across all content areas. Although the literacy tasks
and intensity of use by the specific content area may differ, the following descriptions for
planning content lessons can be easily adapted to fit the needs of specific content areas. It
NOTES: takes time for teachers to learn how to effectively incorporate the literacy support strategies at
the end of this Guide into daily classroom practice. The best model for becoming proficient
with planning strategic lessons is when teachers work collaboratively within or across content
areas to support one another to implement strategic teaching.
The following charts are adapted from the Alabama Reading Initiative-Project for Adolescent
Literacy training guide, Planning Strategic Lessons: A Step by Step Guide (ALSDE, 2007).
1) Before reading/learning instructional strategies to guide content learning
Preparing learners to be ready for content learning involves a variety of actions:
• Activating prior knowledge by considering what is already known about a
content topic and linking new information to it in the brain.
• Setting purpose and generating questions for learning, such as to gain
information; read for pleasure; learn a step-by-step process; or understand the
• Previewing to ascertain how text features, graphs and charts, appendices, and
other text structures can contribute to the reader’s understanding.
• Making predictions about what might happen; adjusting these predictions as
new information is presented, and discarding them when faced with
Teacher Instructional Practices Sample Activities for Students
Source: Fuentes 1998, p. 83.
2) During reading/learning literacy instructional strategies to guide content
learning Helping learners comprehend content information and construct
concepts and relationships involves a variety of actions:
• Questioning to clarify and deepen understanding.
• Monitoring understanding and using fix-up strategies when they do not
understand, such as rereading, reading on, or examining a word more closely.
• Making connections when they use information from personal experiences,
other texts, and knowledge of world issues to make sense of text.
• Inferring by using prior knowledge to get a deeper understanding of text and
making valuable connections with the author’s intent when the answer may
not be explicitly stated.
• Drawing conclusions and refining them as needed in light of additional
• Summarizing what they have read by stopping and reflecting during and after
• Creating mental images or visualizing by “seeing” people, events, and
NOTES: relationships between concepts, but also using other senses (hearing, tasting,
smelling, feeling) as they experience the meanings they build from text.
• Analyzing story structure and informational text structures and using these
structures as supports for building meaning.
• Synthesizing by combining ideas and information within and across texts.
Teacher Instructional Practices Sample Activities for Students
Teachers must: Students will:
• Model metacognitive and cognitive processes. • Find answers to self-initiated questions.
• Verify and/or formulate predictions. • Read silently.
• Help students integrate new data with prior • Read with a partner.
• Predict and verify.
• Get students to think about what they are
reading. • Re-read if necessary.
• Help students construct graphic organizers. • Take notes.
• Summarize text. • Construct and use graphic organizers.
• Read aloud.
• Think aloud.
Source: Fuentes 1998, 83.
3) After reading/learning instructional strategies to guide content learning
Helping learners reflect about the content involves a variety of actions:
• Reflecting about what was read on personal, emotional, and cognitive levels.
• Reviewing information, ideas, relationships, and applications to real life by re-
reading, summarizing, and deep discussion with others.
• Presenting understanding of concepts learned through the informal and formal
written and spoken word, including small group classroom venues and
Teacher Instructional Practices Sample Activities for Students
NOTES: Teachers must: Students will:
• Encourage students to reflect on what they • Discuss.
• Prompt students to evaluate predictions.
• Respond to questions.
• Examine questions that guided reading.
• Verify predictions.
• Require students to respond to text through
discussion. • Construct a graphic organizer.
• Require students to respond to text through • Write in a journal.
• Encourage retelling or summarizing.
• Connect writing to reading.
• Role play.
• Read related materials.
Source: Fuentes 1998, 83.
Gradual Release Framework
A second best practice framework for content area literacy is the gradual release model (I do,
We do, You do). That is, teachers need to explicitly teach and model a literacy support
strategy. It is important when introducing a learning strategy that teachers explain what the
strategy is supposed to help students do (e.g., learning to effectively set a purpose for reading,
learning to make inferences, learning to summarize). Then students need opportunities to
practice the strategy in pairs or small groups and have time to examine how the strategy was
useful and what it supported. They should also be given the opportunity to ask questions and
to get feedback on the quality of their work. Only then should students be asked to implement
a literacy strategy independently.
NOTES: It is important to note that the gradual release process does not always occur within one
lesson. The teacher may need to model the process several times before the students actually
take ownership of the literacy strategy. Becoming proficient and selecting the strategy as a
support for reading content material may take longer for some students than others. The
teacher’s continued support through explicit modeling and differentiation is key for students
at all levels.
Planning Strategic Literacy-Based Lessons
When planning strategic lessons, it is important to understand the purpose of the lesson and
what the students will be able to do as a result of the lesson. Carefully consider the
components of the strategic teaching model and the gradual release framework. Select before,
during, and after literacy learning strategy/ies that best support the lesson outcome and plan
instructional strategies that will help students connect with the purpose of the strategy/ies and
better learn content. The choice of instructional strategy is important and should be carefully
considered to make sure it truly fits the purpose of the lesson.
The following steps will be helpful reminders as you design your lessons.
Step 1: Plan a Before Reading Activity
What is the purpose of before reading activities? Is it to:
• Activate prior knowledge?
• Build background knowledge?
• Generate questions?
• Make predictions?
• Discuss vocabulary?
• Establish a purpose for reading?
Consider the content of the lesson:
• Is it a new concept to most of the students? If so, plan an activity that will allow
students to build some background knowledge about the concepts.
• Is it a review of content students are familiar with? If so, select a strategy that will
help students activate prior knowledge.
• Is there vocabulary in the lesson that may cause interference to understanding? If
so, select an activity to explore and discuss unfamiliar words.
Step 2: Plan a During Reading Activity
What is the purpose of during reading activities? Is it to:
• Engage with text?
• Verify and formulate predictions?
NOTES: • Summarize text?
• Self-monitor comprehension?
• Construct graphic organizers?
• Use mental imagery?
• Integrate new information with prior knowledge?
Consider the content of the lesson:
• Is the text challenging? If so, choose an activity that will require students to stop
periodically as they read, reflect about what they have read, and self-monitor for
• Does the text structure present challenges to student understanding? If so,
consider chunking (dividing into small sections) the text and choosing an activity
that will allow small collaborative reading and sharing of the text to identify
important information before large group discussion.
Step 3: Plan an After Reading Activity
What is the purpose of the after reading activities? Is it to:
• Reflect on the content of the lesson?
• Evaluate predictions?
• Examine questions that guided reading?
• Respond to text through writing?
• Retell or summarize?
Consider the content of the lesson:
• Does the lesson build upon previous learning? If so, consider an activity that
allows students to make connections and evaluate new information.
• Does the content lend itself to visual representations? If so, consider providing
students with graphic organizers as a format for organizing information and
• Does the content contain challenging vocabulary? If so, consider an activity that
will lead to student ownership and understanding of the important vocabulary.
• Is the content open to interpretation? If so, consider activities that will promote
discussion and critical thinking.
A planning worksheet for strategic lessons may look like the following template. The
template is only a suggestion, but the format serves as a reminder to select instructional
strategies that support students as they prepare, engage, and think about complex content text.
NOTES: PART II: LITERACY INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES
This section defines various literacy instructional strategies. Each literacy strategy is
described and cited with its originator, when available, since some of the strategies are
synthesized from the work and research of several individuals. A list of purposes and benefits
is provided to help teachers determine when use of a specific literacy strategy is most
appropriate. Step-by-step directions for using the strategy in the classroom are listed along
with several ideas for extending or differentiating the use of the strategies.
Following each strategy description is a quadrant chart, Cross Content Sample, which
illustrates how each strategy might be used in a high school English, mathematics, science, or
social studies class. Teachers are encouraged to read all four quadrants to see various
examples of how the strategy can be used before, during, and after reading/learning. Teachers
may shape and modify the strategies as needed to best support the learning strategies and
content knowledge they want students to learn.
To summarize, the strategies are presented in the following order:
The Semantic Feature Analysis Chart provides an overview of the 25 suggested
strategies and the purposes for using them.
Each Literacy Support Strategy lists the description, purpose, and directions for use.
Each strategy has a Cross-Content Sample with instructions on how to use the
strategy in English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies.
To deepen teacher understanding of how the literacy support strategies are used within a
content lesson, many are described in detail in one or more of the core content lesson plans
found in the lesson plan section of this Toolkit. Each lesson plan is accompanied by a lesson
narrative, which illustrates how a teacher would teach the lesson, including the step-by-step
process for before, during, and after learning. Lesson narratives also show student responses,
illustrate how to engage students in learning by using the strategy, and identify what
classroom interactions preceded and followed the lesson.
When trying to learn the strategies in isolation, it is not unusual for teachers to feel somewhat
overwhelmed by the number of literacy strategies to choose from or how to implement those
strategies into daily instruction. If this is true for you, begin with planning and practicing the
use of one literacy strategy with your students and, as you become proficient with this
strategy, you can add other strategies to your bag of instructional best practices. Of course, it
is always less threatening and more productive if you are working with a peer or team of
professionals to discuss the use of literacy support strategies and how to best integrate them
into daily practice. Develop opportunities for shared teaching with a peer to observe and
provide, as well as receive, feedback about becoming a strategic teacher.
Think Aloud Strategy
What Is It?
The think-aloud strategy asks students to say out loud what they are thinking
about when reading, solving math problems, or simply responding to
questions posed by teachers or other students. Effective teachers think out
NOTES: loud on a regular basis to model this process for students. In this way, they
demonstrate practical ways of approaching difficult problems while bringing
to the surface the complex thinking processes that underlie reading
comprehension, mathematical problem solving, and other cognitively
Thinking out loud is an excellent way to teach how to estimate the number of
people in a crowd, revise a paper for a specific audience, predict the outcome
of a scientific experiment, use a key to decipher a map, access prior
knowledge before reading a new passage, monitor comprehension while
reading a difficult textbook, and so on.
Getting students into the habit of thinking out loud enriches classroom
discourse and gives teachers an important assessment and diagnostic tool.
Why Is It Important?
By verbalizing their inner speech (silent dialogue) as they think their way
through a problem, teachers model how expert thinkers solve problems. As
teachers reflect on their learning processes, they discuss with students the
problems learners face and how learners try to solve them. As students think
out loud with teachers and with one another, they gradually internalize this
dialogue; it becomes their inner speech, the means by which they direct their
own behaviors and problem-solving processes (Tinzmann et al. 1990).
Therefore, as students think out loud, they learn how to learn. They learn to
think as authors, mathematicians, anthropologists, economists, historians,
scientists, and artists. They develop into reflective, metacognitive,
independent learners, an invaluable step in helping students understand that
learning requires effort and often is difficult (Tinzmann et al. 1990). It lets
students know that they are not alone in having to think their way through the
Think-alouds are used to model comprehension processes such as making
predictions, creating images, linking information in text with prior
knowledge, monitoring comprehension, and overcoming problems with word
recognition or comprehension (Gunning 1996).
By listening in as students think aloud, teachers can diagnose students' strengths and
weakness. "When teachers use assessment techniques such as observations,
conversations and interviews with students, or interactive journals, students are
likely to learn through the process of articulating their ideas and answering the
teacher's questions" (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2000).
How Can You Make It Happen?
Modeling Thinking Out Loud
Asking students to use a strategy to solve complex problems and perform
sophisticated tasks is not enough. Each strategy must be used analytically and
may require trial-and-error reasoning. Thinking out loud allows teachers to
model this complex process for students.
For example, suppose during math class you'd like students to estimate the
number of pencils in a school. Introduce the strategy by saying, "The strategy
I am going to use today is estimation. We use it to . . . It is useful because . . .
When we estimate, we . . ."
Next say, "I am going to think aloud as I estimate the number of pencils in
our school. I want you to listen and jot down my ideas and actions." Then,
think aloud as you perform the task.
Your think-aloud might go something like this:
"Hmmmmmm. So, let me start by estimating the number of
students in the building. Let's see. There are 5 grades; first
grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, plus
kindergarten. So, that makes 6 grades because 5 plus 1 equals 6.
And there are 2 classes at each grade level, right? So, that
makes 12 classes in all because 6 times 2 is 12. Okay, now I
have to figure out how many students in all. Well, how many in
this class? [Counts.] Fifteen, right? Okay, I'm going to assume
that 15 is average. So, if there are 12 classes with 15 students in
each class, that makes, let's see, if it were 10 classes it would be
150 because 10 times 15 is 150. Then 2 more classes would be
2 times 15, and 2 times 15 is 30, so I add 30 to 150 and get 180.
So, there are about 180 students in the school. I also have to add
12 to 180 because the school has 12 teachers, and teachers use
pencils, too. So that is 192 people with pencils."
Continue in this way.
When reading aloud, you can stop from time to time and orally complete
sentences like these:
So far, I've learned...
This made me think of...
That didn't make sense.
I think ___ will happen next.
I reread that part because...
I was confused by...
NOTES: I think the most important part was...
That is interesting because...
I wonder why...
I just thought of...
Another option is to videotape the part of a lesson that models thinking aloud.
Students can watch the tape and figure out what the teacher did and why.
Stop the tape periodically to discuss what they notice, what strategies were
tried, and why, and whether they worked. As students discuss the process, jot
down any important observations.
Once students are familiar with the strategy, include them in a think-aloud
process. For example:
Teacher: "For science class, we need to figure out how much snow is going to
fall this year. How can we do that?"
Student: "We could estimate."
Teacher: "That sounds like it might work. How do we start? What do we do
next? How do we know if our estimate is close? How do we check it?"
In schools where teachers work collaboratively in grade-level teams or
learning communities, teachers can plan and rehearse thinking out loud with a
partner before introducing the strategy to students. This is especially useful
when the whole school is focusing on the same strategy, such as using
learning logs or reflective journals in content area classes or applying fix-up
strategies when reading informational and story texts.
In reciprocal think-alouds, students are paired with a partner. Student take
turns thinking aloud as they read a difficult text, form a hypothesis in science,
or compare opposing points of view in social studies. While the first student
is thinking aloud, the second student listens and records what the first student
says. Then students change roles so that each partner has a chance to think
aloud and to observe the process. Next, students reflect on the process
together, sharing the things they tried and discussing what worked well for
them and what didn't. As they write about their findings, they can start a
mutual learning log that they can refer back to.
After students are comfortable with the think-aloud process, use the strategy
as an assessment tool. As students think out loud through a problem-solving
process, such as reflecting on the steps used to solve a problem in math, write
what they say. This allows you to observe which strategies students use. By
analyzing the results, you can pinpoint the individual student's needs and
provide appropriate instruction.
Assign a task, such as solving a specific problem or reading a passage of text.
Introduce the task to students by saying, "I want you to think aloud as you
complete the task: say everything that is going on in your mind." As students
complete the task, listen carefully and write down what students say. It may
be helpful to use a tape recorder. If students forget to think aloud, ask open-
ended questions: "What are you thinking now?" and "Why do you think
After the think-alouds, informally interview students to clarify any confusion
that might have arisen during the think-aloud. For example, "When you were
thinking aloud, you said . . . Can you explain what you meant?"
Lastly, use a rubric as an aid to analyze each student's think-aloud, and use
the results to shape instruction.
For state-mandated tests, determine if students need to think aloud during the
actual testing situation. When people are asked to solve difficult problems or
to perform difficult tasks, inner speech goes external (Tinzmann et al. 1990).
When faced with a problem-solving situation, some students need to think
aloud. For these students, if the state testing protocol permits it, arrange for
testing situations that allow students to use think-alouds. This will give a
more complete picture of what these students can do as independent learners.
How Can You Stretch Students' Thinking?
Reflective journals and learning logs are a natural extension of thinking out
loud. By jotting down what you say, you can model the journaling process as
you model thinking out loud. As students start to keep journals or learning
logs, review them on an ongoing basis to monitor the students' metacognition
and use of essential strategies.
When Can You Use It?
The process of thinking out loud can be used in K-12 classes during all
phases of the reading process. Before reading you may think out loud to
demonstrate accessing prior knowledge or to make predictions about the text.
During reading, model reading comprehension using fix-up strategies or
examining text structure to maintain meaning. After reading, model using the
text to support an opinion, or analyze the text from the author's point of view.
Thinking out loud can be used to model all phases of the writing process. In
pre-writing, model the strategies writers use to get the process started; during
the drafting process, model creating "sloppy copies"; during revision, model
how to ask questions and think about readers' needs; and during the editing
process, model how to use conventions to help readers understand the
message. As students engage in reciprocal think-alouds, they dialogue about
their texts. This dialoguing helps students to internalize their sense of
audience and fine-tune their craftsmanship as writers.
When teaching a new math process or strategy, think aloud to model its use.
Ask students to work with a partner to practice thinking aloud to describe
how they use the new process or strategy. Listen to students as they think
aloud to assess their understanding.
In classroom discussions of difficult social studies topics, such as capital
punishment ask that students not only give their opinions but explain their
reasoning by thinking out loud. Model thinking out loud yourself as you read
a difficult text or express your own opinion on a complex issue.
Think-alouds can be used to model the inquiry process in science. During
instruction, have students continue the inquiry process using reciprocal think-
alouds and then reflect upon the process in their journals or learning logs.